Great Southern Coffee Roaster: Counter Culture Coffee

This is the first in our series of “Great Southern X” featuring Southern artisans of drinking well: brewers, distilleries, winemakers, and, today, coffee roasters. Our inaugural featured artisan is none other than Counter Culture Coffee, based in Durham, North Carolina. They have marched across the South, partnering with local coffee houses and retailers alike to bring their beans to the people. We won’t hold it against them that their presence has now made its way to the decidedly un-Southern locale of New York as well – cue the old Pace picante commercial – “NEW YORK CITY??”

Counter Culture started roasting coffee in Durham back in 1995, focusing at the time on custom blends for some of Durham and Chapel Hill’s great Southern restaurants – places like Magnolia Grill, Nana’s and Crook’s Corner. Brett Smith, president and co-founder of Counter Culture, says that their “proximity to the Southern culinary scene through these restaurants gave us a great appreciation for quality and opened our eyes to the power of setting a high bar.” They have grown tremendously since those early days in Durham, but have maintained a tremendous focus on quality while building strong relationships with everyone along the coffee chain – from the growers in remote parts of the world to the baristas at your local coffee bar.

Here are a few of the reasons that Counter Culture Coffee is a “Great Southern Coffee Roaster”…

They turn out beans that make great tasting coffee. Isn’t that both obvious AND a bit of an understatement? Counter Culture turns out great beans by starting with direct trade partnerships at the source, with the farmers in key coffee regions around the world. They literally partner with their growers, to get the best possible product, as the coffee growing seasons dictate. They offer a revolving door of single-origin coffees, estate and microlot selections, and custom blends that maximize what mother nature brings to bear. On the national coffee scene, Counter Culture is often mentioned in the same breath as Chicago’s Intelligentsia and Portland’s Stumptown when it comes to the question of “who has the best beans.”

They want us all to be smarter coffee drinkers and coffee brewers. Counter Culture has an impressive dedication to “education” – from working with the growers, to their own employees, to the coffee shops who brew their beans, to barista certification programs, to us random consumers who love good coffee. For Smith, “part of our mission is to create cutting edge coffee people,” and that means everyone along that chain from grower to drinker. Here in Atlanta, you can go down to their King Plow Training Center each Friday morning to take part in a coffee cupping, to get a feel for what goes on behind the scenes in analyzing and tasting what different beans and roasts have to offer. According to Smith, “home coffee enthusiasts now make up a majorty of the weekly cuppers – our largest crowd to date was over 70 and we hope to have a larger one soon.” In their regional training centers, they also offer courses in coffee education, from brewing basics to understanding seasonality and its impact on the end product. From Durham to Asheville to Atlanta, Charlotte, Washington, DC, and, yes, New York City.

Article continues below photo. Pictured: coffee cupping at King Plow Training Center.

They understand that sustainability is more than a buzz word. You’ll notice a trend here… Counter Culture starts its attention to sustainability at the source – its farmers – and then follows it through to the consumer. They have dedicated programs for grower fairness (exceeding Fair Trade certified pricing levels, quality-based incentives), direct collaboration, organic / shade-grown farming, third-party certifications, and more. Sustainability is inherent in their approach. According to Smith, “we’d like to play a part in creating quality and sustainability-focused coffee culture at every stage in coffee’s journey from farm to cup. We believe that our unique approach to coffee is not only good for consumers, it’s also good for partnering retailers, the farmers with whom we collaborate, and the ecosystems in which they work.”

They love DECAF too! As a frequent drinker of decaffeinated coffee, it’s great to discover a roaster who puts just as much emphasis on their decaf beans as their regular beans. Counter Culture has frequently received acclaim for its decaf options, for good reason. Here’s a quote from their website, “Lovers of decaffeinated coffee drink coffee because, more than anything, they simply love the flavor! We at Counter Culture feel a particular responsibility to the decaf drinker and have made it our special mission to roast the best decafs on the planet.”

Cheers to Counter Culture Coffee – a great Southern coffee roaster.

Counter Culture Coffee can be found at – where you can buy their beans and find out more about their education programs. Counter Culture Coffee can also be found in stellar coffee shops in the South and East Coast including:

Octane in Atlanta, 3Cups in Chapel Hill, Busy Bee Cafe in Raleigh, Dripolator in Asheville, Peregrine Espresso in DC, and Bluebird Coffee Shop in New York. You can often find their coffee at Whole Foods or Fresh Market. In Atlanta, check out these other restaurants and coffee shops that serve Counter Culture Coffee: Cakes and AleLeon’s Full Service, Noon MidtownRise and DineEmpire State South, Carroll St Cafe, 5 Seasons Westside, and Sip the Experience (among others!)

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